WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is beginning a new term with controversial issues that offer the court's conservative majority the chance to move aggressively to undo limits on campaign contributions and allow for more government-sanctioned prayer.
The justices also will deal with a case that goes to the heart of the partisan impasse in Washington: whether and when the president may use recess appointments to fill key positions without Senate confirmation.
The term that starts today may be short on the high-profile battles over health care and gay marriage that marked the past two years. But several cases ask the court to overrule prior decisions.
"There are an unusual number of cases going right to hot-button cultural issues and aggressive briefing on the conservative side asking precedents to be overruled," said Georgetown University law professor Pamela Harris, who served in President Barack Obama's Justice Department.
Paul Clement, the top Supreme Court lawyer under President George W. Bush, agreed that the opportunity exists for dramatic precedent-busting decisions. But Clement said each case also offers the court a narrower outcome that may be more in keeping with Chief Justice John Roberts' stated desire for incremental decision-making that bridges the court's ideological divide.
The justices probably will decide in the fall whether to resolve competing lower court rulings about the new health care law's requirement that employer-sponsored health plans include coverage of contraceptives.
The court may hear its first abortion case since 2007, a review of an Oklahoma law that would restrict the use of abortion-inducing drugs such as RU-486.
In the campaign finance case to be argued Tuesday, there is a challenge to the overall limits on what an individual may give to candidates, political parties and political action committees in a two-year federal election cycle, currently $48,600 to candidates and $123,600 in total. The $2,600 limit on contributions to a candidate is not at issue.
In a prayer case, Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester, is asking the court to uphold its practice of opening town council meetings with a prayer, despite an appeals court ruling that found the invocations a violation of the First Amendment because they almost always were Christian prayers.
On affirmative action, Michigan is fighting to preserve a constitutional amendment that bans racial preferences in education.